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Three Plant-Based Fibers with the Potential to Transform the Green Auto Industry

While the green auto industry has primarily been focused on reducing air pollution via emissions, the process of building a car (and disposing of one) is also very difficult and intensive on the environment. Glass, plastics, steel, rubber, and paint, are difficult to produce and can have lasting effects when left to rot in a junkyard following a car’s demise.

Leading minds in the scientific and engineering realms have been devoting time and efforts into solving this issue. As a result, tests have been conducted with natural substances in an attempt to find more eco-friendly methods of building and producing green vehicles.

While these developments are still in their early stages of infancy, scientists and engineers are reportedly touting the following three natural substances as having the potential to transform the green auto industry forever.

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  1. Wood-Based Carbon Fibers

Just recently, a team of Swedish researchers created a toy-sized prototype of a vehicle whose roof and battery is completely composed of wood-based carbon fiber

The important element in this fiber is called lignin, and is very prominent around the world. It is actually present in the cells of almost all land-dwelling plants, and is the second most prominent polymer following cellulose.

Researchers hope that “eventually carbon fiber bodywork and batteries could be combined to simultaneously manage mechanical loads and store mechanical energy”.

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  1. Fruit Fibers

During the 241st National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society (ACS), a team presented new types of automotive plastics that are “stronger, lighter, and more eco-friendly” than the plastics currently in use.

The group of researchers, led by Alcides Leão of Sao Paulo State University, used fibers from fruits (such as pineapples and bananas) to create these substances.

While the fruits themselves are delicate, the “nano-cellulose” fibers that compose them are very strong.  In fact, these fibers have been deemed comparable in strength to Kevlar (a material used in the production of bullet-proof vests and other armor).

Unlike Kevlar however, these fibers are completely renewable. Additionally, lessening the weight of the materials used in a car’s production will automatically increase the vehicle’s fuel efficiency as it needs less power to move its size.

In addition to weight and strength benefits, this fruit fiber plastic has additional “mechanical advantages” including a greater resistance to heat, gas, water, and oxygen damage. Leão believes that components such as “dashboards, bumpers, [and] side-panels” built from these fibers will become the norm.

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  1. Hemp and Elephant Grass

A few years back, the Canadian-designed Kestrel car was advertised as the world’s most eco-friendly car. While the car was vastly publicized as being produced with hemp and being able to reach speeds of 180 mph, it does not seem to have been ever completed or sold.

Since the Kestrel car’s temporary fame, Alan Crosky (of the University of New South Whales in Australia) has been one of the researchers devoted to moving hemp and other hemp-like substances (such as elephant grass) into the sphere of green auto production.  Crosky elaborates that “hemp fibers have higher strength to weight ratios than steel and can also be considerably cheaper to manufacture”.

While the use of hemp is less popular in the United States, German companies (such as Mercedes, BMW and Audi Volkswagen) have more than tripled their use of natural fibers in car production, since the fibers’ introduction to jute-based door panels in the Mercedes E class (circa 1999).

Five Big Reasons to be Worried about Auto Emissions

  1. Automobile Production is Environmentally Intensive

Automobiles are tough on the environment in many ways.

  • Firstly, just building a car requires many environmentally-intensive materials, such as glass, plastics, steel, rubber, etc.
  • Many of the car’s components can remain in the environment long after the car has been out of use (things such as plastics and battery acid, for example). Luckily about ¾ of modern cars can be recycled which slightly minimizes this effect.
  • Automobile emissions, however, currently form 80-90% of a car’s negative impact on the environment,
  1. More Driving Than Ever Before

Automobile emissions are becoming a large priority to many nations’ leaders.  With an average increase of 156.4 billion vehicle miles travelled (VMT) in only 41 years, it’s easy to see how emissions are becoming more of a hazard than ever before.

In fact, President Obama has recently announced a plan to increase the price of gas by approximately 30% in an attempt to cut back on auto emissions, which are also the source of 1/3 of American air pollution.

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  1. Emissions Contain Many Dangerous Components

Automobile emissions contain several different types of gasses and particles which can have negative consequences on the environment. Most dangerously, these emissions include:

  • Carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change, global warming, as well as the creation of ozone and F-Gasses
  • Hydrocarbons, which combine with other substances to form smog
  • Nitrogen and sulfur oxides, the main components of acid rain. They are also known to cause respiratory illnesses in humans and animals
  • Particulate matter, tiny pieces of solids (such as metal or soot) which are created when fuel is not completely combusted. This matter can get into surrounding soil and water, which can then affect animals in many devastating ways (including reproductively, immunologically, and neurologically).

This picture taken on January 9, 2015 shows cars being assembled in a workshop of an automobile factory in Shenyang, northeast China's Liaoning province. China's auto sales exceeded 23 million vehicles last year, an industry group said on January 12, but annual growth halved from 2013 as a weaker economy took its toll on the world's biggest car market. CHINA OUT     AFP PHOTO        (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/Getty Images)

  1. Ground-Level Release of Emissions

As mentioned, automobile emissions are a large problem in regards to air pollution.

Because they are released in proximity to people at ground-level, they are considered an “even more immediate” health concern than industrial smoke stacks, which pump their emissions high into the sky.

It should also be noted that 85% of vehicle emissions are from personal automobiles, and NOT public transportation or industrial vehicles (as reported in 2009).

  1. No One is Immune

Many studies on emissions have been conducted. These show that, in the grand scheme of automobile emissions, everyone is a victim. For example,

  • In their 2005 study, Marshall and Behrentz reported that bus passengers (school and public) received just as much exposure to harmful emissions as the drivers. This means drivers and passengers are equally at risk.
  • In a 2004 study (by Burr and colleagues) that examined children who did not ride busses, daycares or home can also be high-emission areas, depending on the surrounding traffic.
  • While children are thought to be more vulnerable to emissions due to their “higher breathing rates” and “developing lungs and immune systems”, adults are definitely not immune.
  • It is likely that all automobile emissions are carcinogenic. In a study conducted by Soll-Johanning and colleagues in 1998, it was found that individuals exposed to air pollution increased their chances of developing cancer by 25%. In this particular study, the exposed men were found to be at a 60% increase for cancer development, while the women suffered a startling 160%.

This data clearly shows that auto emissions should be a concern for everyone.

Four Things That Make Tesla Motors Unique

  1. Elon Musk

Elon Musk, Tesla Motors’ South African CEO, is well known and respected in the entrepreneurial world. Aside from being a successful business man, he is also praised for genuinely wanting to make the world a better place. His two main goals include reducing global warming through eco-friendly techniques (such as Tesla’s electric vehicles), as well as improving space travel techniques (via his company SpaceX).

A lesser known fact: Musk also founded PayPal, which he acquired when his company X.com merged with Confinity.

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  1. Sports Car Luxury

Tesla’s electric vehicles are one of the first to successfully combine eco-friendly electric engines with sports car luxuries:

  • The Tesla Roadster was the very first electric sports car
  • In addition to this, it was also the very first electric car to use lithium-ion batteries
  • Tesla Motors followed its release with the Model S, described as a “luxury lift-back”
  • A Model X crossover luxury sedan was most recently released by the company

In addition to making electric vehicles sleek and appealing, Tesla is constantly coming up with innovative features that make their vehicles truly one-of-a-kind.  A few examples include:

  • The capacity to update the vehicle’s software wirelessly (no trips to a shop or auto dealer)
  • Very impressive acceleration speeds with an “insane” driving mode, and a newly added “ludicrous’ mode that can go from 0-60 mph in only 2.8 seconds
  • A 253 mile range
  • Self-parking programming
  • A “summoner”, which Musk hopes customers will eventually be able to use “to call their cars from anywhere in the country [while the car will] sync with the customer’s calendar to know when to arrive.

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  1. Supercharge Stations

A lack of charging stations or a slow charging time can be a turn off to many vehicle owners.  In order to combat this problem, Tesla Motors has been steadily increasing their number of charging stations throughout 2015.

These are not just any charging stations, either. These “superchargers” are capable of charging your battery to midpoint in only twenty minutes. There are approximately 3500 Supercharger stations currently placed along the most travelled roadways in the United States.

  1. Sell Directly To Consumer

Tesla Motors has a unique method of selling that involves selling directly to consumers as opposed to using dealerships as middle-men.  Unfortunately, this is against the law in many American states, including:

  • West Virginia
  • New Jersey
  • Texas

These regulations were allegedly set in place to promote “intrabrand” competition, where consumers would not only be given a choice of a manufacturer, but also a choice between local dealerships. For example, consumers would not only be choosing between Ford and Volkswagen, but between all local Ford dealers.

Todd Maron, Tesla’s head lawyer, has claimed there are many reasons that this system would not work for selling Tesla automobiles. Supported by the FCC, these reasons include:

  • Tesla automobiles are unique and their support cannot be outsourced to third parties
  • Customer education on the product is extensive and would not be able to be done successfully at the dealership level
  • Dealerships charge a higher cost on the product to make a profit, and, because these regulations differ per state, customers are more likely to avoid added costs by simply buying out of state
  • Dealerships get most of their business through maintenance services; Tesla’s cars are unique and don’t require these types of things. Maron elaborates “If a car doesn’t use oil, customers won’t come in for regular oil changes”.

Tesla Motors has recently applied for a dealership license in the State of Michigan. At this time, there have been no further updates on the matter.

The Top 5 Best-Selling Electric Cars of 2015

  1. VW e-Golf

VW e-Golf

The Volkswagen e-Golf ranked the fifth most popular electric car in the United States, selling a total of 4200 units in 2015.  This four-door hatchback is the first electric vehicle that Volkswagen has sold in the US market. Advertising a range of 83 miles per charge, the e-Golf utilizes Panasonic air-cooled lithium-ion batteries and an electric motor to run.

If you live in one of the 10 ZEV states (California, Connecticut, Maine, Rhode Island, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island or Vermont), rapid charging stations are available at select VW dealerships. These stations can restore the e-Golf’s batteries to 80% in about a half an hour.  Volkswagen additionally offers a Bosch rapid-charging home unit for the price of 500$.

  1. Fiat 500e

It is reported that the US is currently home to more Italian cars than at any other point in history. This seems to ring true as the Italian Fiat 500e ranks as the fourth most sold car in the US during 2015.  Beating the VW e-Golf by a few thousand, the distinctive Fiat 500e sold over 6000 units total.

This compact automobile advertises a range of “more than 100 miles” (as determined by the Environmental Protection Agency), and is described as “[evoking] high style rather than polarizing design”.

Additionally, there up at $14,000 of credit and rebates that become available to you upon the purchase of this car.

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  1. BMW i3

The BMW i3 was 2015’s third best-selling electric vehicle in the United States, selling approximately 11,000 units. The i3 was the first electric vehicle released by BMW, as well as the first mass-produced vehicle to utilize carbon-fiber reinforced polymer. The higher strength-weight ratio of these polymers means a higher range/mileage for the vehicle.

While the i3 is BMW’s first electric product, reviewers have noted that it “remains every inch a bona fide BMW” by not sacrificing the low centre of gravity and advanced rear-wheel-drive handling that has been associated with the brand.

Nissan LEAF

  1. Nissan LEAF

The Nissan LEAF (whose acronym stands for Leading Environmentally-Friendly Affordable Family car) was the second most popular electric car amongst Americans in 2015, selling over 17,000 units.

This five-door hatchback was originally introduced in America and Japan in 2010, however by December 2015 (a mere five years later), it had grown to become “the world’s all –time best selling highway-capable all-electric car”.

The Nissan LEAF has won many awards, including a Green Car Vision Award, the European Car of the Year, World Car of the Year, and Car of the Year Japan.

Plans for 2017 LEAF include increasing its range, with it being reported that “[the new model] would have a range of 120 miles, possibly as high as 150 miles”.

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  1. Tesla Model S

Selling a total of more than 25,000 American units, the Tesla Model S electric car blew its 2015 competitors out of the water. Toting the highest American safety rating possible, as well as a range of 89 miles per its gasoline equivalent, Tesla electric vehicles have been highly praised within the industry.

The Model S (and Tesla Motors themselves) has received numerous awards, including a Most Improved Loyalty to Make award, and a Most Improved Conquest Percentage award (both from the 2015 IHS Automotive Loyalty Awards).

Most recently the mid-range Model S vehicles have been discontinued, due to the fact that “the recently introduced 90-kWh battery pack offers unprecedented range and value that has been well received by [their] customers.”

Three Reasons Why China Is Becoming the Leading Market for Electric Vehicles

  1. Air Quality in China Requires Electric Vehicles

China is currently suffering from very high levels of air pollution stemming from their coal-burning companies and vehicle usage. During the 2015 Holidays, Beijing experienced a thick grey smog of particulates that covered the entire city. A few consequences of this incident included:

  • The cancellation of over 200 flights because of “limited visibility”
  • A warning to elders and children to avoid outside activities
  • A temporary limit to the number of drivers on the road (determined by license plates)

Government Subsidies and Incentives for Buyers

These events have been recurring, and approximately 300 Chinese areas fail to meet the Chinese air quality standards (set at 35 micrograms). This is actually more unfortunate than it seems, as the World Health Organization uses a standard of only 10 micrograms.

Automobile expert Jean-Francois Belorgey, has been quoted as saying that “pollution levels mean the government has no other choice “than to encourage the development of new energy vehicles”.

  1. Government Subsidies and Incentives for Buyers

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In an attempt to grow the Chinese electric vehicle market (and reduce air pollution levels), the Chinese government has created incentive subsidies for buyers.  In order to reach its goal of having 5 million green vehicles on the streets by 2020, the Chinese government has offered green vehicle buyers:

  • Subsidies up to 55,000 yuan (approximately $8,400 USD) for buyers of low or zero emission automobile; additionally, these subsidies can be matched by “local authorities” which doubles the savings
  • Removal of restrictions that are imposed on drivers during times of heavy smog (like the 2015 holidays)
  • Exemption from city-specific lotteries put in place to limit the total number of vehicles on the road

The Chinese government has stated that it will attempt to “phase out” the subsidies slowly leading up to 2020 as to ensure that “the sector does not become dependent on handouts”.

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  1. Focus on Chinese Manufacturing

There is a catch to the Chinese government’s subsidies and incentives. They only apply to domestically-made cars, not foreign imports.  As a result, many Chinese automobile producers are doing very well in the market. Many foreign companies are also planning to build Chinese branches to cash in on the Chinese demand for green vehicles.

Examples of both include:

  • Chinese auto company BYD (backed by Warren Buffett), who are the self-proclaimed largest electric vehicle maker in the world
  • Chinese company Geely (owners of Volvo), who plan to convert 90% of their sales to hybrid and electric vehicles by 2020
  • France’s Renault car company, who recently opened a Chinese branch and has said that they “see China as an ideal test ground for low-cost electric vehicles”
  • General Motors, who plans to make its hybrid Cadillac CT6 in China and will later be exporting it to the United States

Due to these three factors, Chinese electric car sales increased by nearly 500% from January to October 2015. As a result, it has been reported that these numbers now put China in a position to “overtake the United States as the largest market for electric cars.”

What Lower Gas Prices Mean for the Green Auto Industry

For the past year or so the Saudi Arabian company OPEC has been increasing the supply of oil, while the demand for it has remained constant.  As any amateur economist can tell you, this means that we have been experiencing extraordinarily low gas prices as a result.

These low prices can lead to other consequences, however.

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  1. Government Regulation and Exploiting of Loop Holes

With lower gas prices and an increased use of fossil fuels, generally comes some form of government regulation.

When this occurs, loop holes are often found and exploited by the automobile industry

. Here are a few examples:

  • In the early 1980s, the car industry seemed to be steadily transforming, following imposed government regulations that aimed to double the fuel efficiency of automobiles to 27.5 miles per gallon. This seemed to have had temporary success until it was unfortunately discovered that many automobile makers were relying on a loophole. The manufacturers were selling “light trucks”, which still used an average of 19.5 miles per gallon, and made up 1/5 of new vehicle sales of that time. Eventually, urged by Ford and General Motors lobbyists, the government standards were lowered.
  • This situation seems to parallel our own, with the many reported automobile scandals of the past year. The Volkswagen emission scandal was prominent in the media with the German company admitting to cheating American tests. The Volkswagen diesel engines had been equipped with software that could detect when the engine was being tested. The software would then alter the performance of the engine to meet industry standards while the test was being performed.

If gas prices continue to rise and the interest in fuel efficiency continues to drop, it is likely the government will create some type of additional regulation measures. If this occurs, the automobile industry will no doubt follow suit, looking for loopholes in the name of sales.

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  1. Interest in Fuel-Efficiency Drops

The public’s interest in fuel-efficiency and electric cars is highly based on financial factors. While there are green activists, many individuals have been turning towards hybrids and smaller cars strictly for the savings.

  • Despite government regulations and aims to meet international standards, when there are lowered gas prices, the interest in fuel-efficiency drops. Forbes reports that the ultra-low gasoline prices even cause people who own electric and hybrid cards to “defect to sport utility vehicles and other gas-powered models”.
  • This was calculated statistically and an increase in electric (and drop in pickup) sales during times of high gas prices can clearly be observed, while the opposite is true in times of low gas prices.
  • Another factor that decreases interest in fuel efficiency is a lack of convenience. Charging stations for electric vehicles are much sparser than their gas station counterparts. The charging process also requires more time.

In an attempt to fight the convenience issue, BMW & Nissan have partnered up to build 120 “fast charging” stations in 19 states with the goal of increasing electric and hybrid popularity in these areas.

President Obama has additionally proposed a controversial 10$ tax per barrel of crude oil (which amounts to 33% of the total barrel cost). If this legislation passes, gas prices will likely rise again.

The Facts behind the Volkswagen Diesel Dupe

What Happened?

Researchers from the West Virginia University’s Council on Clean Transportation were doing tests with Volkswagen vehicles. For some unknown reason, the vehicles were releasing more emissions when running on the road than when they were being tested in the lab.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) ultimately discovered that Volkswagen diesel cars had been programmed with an engine “defeat device”. This software was designed to detect when the vehicle’s emissions were being tested.  It would detect a test scenario by monitoring the vehicle’s:

  • Steering wheel position
  • Air pressure
  • Speed
  • Engine operation

If the software detected that a test was being conducted, it would put the car into a “safety mode” which would reduce the engine’s performance and emissions.

Once the vehicle was back on the road, the safety mode was turned off, and high levels of emissions were released.  In particular, the vehicles released “nitrogen oxide pollutants [,] at rates up to 40 times above what is allowed in the United States”.

The whole Volkswagen scandal has been described in the media as “The Diesel Dupe”.

Ford, BMW and Renault-Nissan have made statements that denied using any defeat devices in their vehicles. Some companies have simply said that they “comply with the law”, while others have not addressed the topic at all.

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What Cars Were Affected?

  • All cars with EA 189 Diesel engines
  • Approximately 500,000 cars in the US (as detected by the EPA). These cars include the Audi A3, and the Volkswagen Jetta, Beetle, Golf, and Passat.
  • 1 million cars were sold with the software in Europe specifically (as revealed by Volkswagen)
  • And 11 million cars world-wide also have the software
  • The 3-litre diesel engines in some Volkswagen Porsche and Audi models have also been suspected of being equipped with the software however Volkswagen has denied these accusations.

Additionally, while the company has stated that their vehicles meet Indian emission standards, they are still updating all Indian EA 189 engines to make them “as clean as the affected cars in Europe.”

Who is Responsible?

Volkswagen initially blamed the scandal on “rogue” engineers, with its American CEO claiming that the plan was unknown at the corporate level.

Since then however, there have been media reports claiming that the defeat device was an “open” secret among Volkswagen management and execs dating back to 2006, a period when Volkswagen was trying to cost-effectively increase American sales.

A former employer/whistle-blower (now working with investigators) is said to have alerted management about the software in 2011, but received no managerial response.

Martin Winterkorn, Volkswagen CEO, resigns from the company in September of 2015 after the scandal hits the media.

How Much Will it Cost?

While the total costs are still unknown, Volkswagen is facing multiple debts. The company was reported as having put away $7.3 billion to cover the costs of the scandal; however they admitted to Bloomberg that this was not enough. It was reported they later put away another additional $21 billion dollars in loans for the potential financial consequences, including (but not limited to):

  • A possible EPA fine of $37,500 for each affected vehicle (a maximum of $18 billion)
  • The cost of replacing all affected engines (or buying the vehicles back),
  • Possible legal costs, losses and settlements filed by shareholders and buyers

Types of Eco-Friendly Vehicles

What is an Eco-Friendly Vehicle?

An eco-friendly vehicle is a car that has less of an environmental impact than average automobiles on the market; generally this means fewer emissions. These vehicles can run off less gas or another source of energy completely.

Because the eco-friendly cars that do run on gas release fewer emissions, this means that they are more fuel-efficient than the norm. They are also touted as being more efficient, reliable, and as requiring less maintenance than their petrol-run counterparts.

Here are the most common types of eco-friendly cars:

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Hybrid Cars

Hybrid cars are a type of car that utilizes both gas-combustion and battery power to run. When a driver is driving in town, which involves lots of stopping and going action, a hybrid will primarily use the electric motor. When the hybrid begins coasting (on a highway, for example), the battery is designed to be charged by the continuous motion of the wheels.

While hybrid vehicles do use gas, with the help of the battery, it is much less than the average petrol-run car. This reduces emissions and increases fuel-efficiency.

 Characteristics of hybrid cars:

  • More quiet than conventional cars
  • The gas engine used is much smaller than regular vehicles
  • Can be more expensive than regular vehicles
  • Generally more complex than the average car, which may mean higher-priced repairs
  • May have a feature called “regenerative braking”. This charges the battery when the brakes are used and also results in less brake-wear

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Electric Cars

Electric cars, like hybrids, also run on rechargeable batteries. This type of vehicle however, uses no combustion engine and therefore does not emit any emissions.

It is reported that the “store chemical energy” in the battery packs of these vehicles are much more efficient than combustion engines. Additionally, electric vehicles only cost approximately 2-4 cents/mile to run.

Characteristics of electric cars:

  • They produce no exhaust, emissions, or noxious fumes
  • More quiet than conventional cars
  • Many types of electric cars also feature regenerative breaking (like hybrids)
  • Can usually travel hundreds of miles without being recharged, but this depends on the driver’s style, type of battery used, as well as the weight and size of the vehicle

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Hydrogen Fuel-Cell Cars

The development of hydrogen fuel-cell cars has been excitedly awaited in the media. These cells are “a clean, reliable, quiet, and efficient” method to generate electric power.  While these types of vehicles are great for the environment, there are a few consumer drawbacks:

  • Lack of hydrogen refuelling stations make them inconvenient (they only exist in certain areas of the country and are extremely expensive to build)
  • When compared to electric cars, hydrogen fuel-cell cars are very expensive (selling for approximately $60,000)
  • Hydrogen fuel cells are also very expensive (ten times more so than their electric counterparts), which makes them “too cost-prohibitive” to really break into the market

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Solar Cars

Solar cars are the new rage in the eco-friendly automobile world, however there is still much development to be done with them. While solar cars release absolutely no emissions or noxious fumes, there are a few large problems that have prevented them from becoming viable options in the auto industry. These include:

  • Possible issues when driving in sunless weather conditions (or at night)
  • Fragile solar cells mean great potential for damage
  • Being engineered for “function, not comfort”

If these issues can be resolved, we may very well see solar cars increasing in popularity during the coming years.